Making sense of the emotional field

This is one of those Stories of the Field. And maybe it is about Why I love anthropology as well. I’m not sure.

I often tell people, just let me do my fieldwork and leave me the hell alone. It is in my fieldwork, previously among Moroccan-Dutch Muslim youth in the city of Gouda and now among Salafi Muslims in the Netherlands, where I am most comfortable. But besides the fact that fieldwork is interesting, fun and challenging it is also often cumbersome, exhausting and leaves me with feelings of being a stranger everywhere. I find it remarkable how many accounts of the fieldwork in PhD thesis and articles are often so neat and slick; if one encounters a problem it is solved rationally, explained away rationally or if there is no other option, legitimized rationally. No signs of emotional breakdowns, feelings of alienation, sadness, happiness and joy (except professional joy when there is a breakthrough in the research), boredom and despair. I admit, I am one of these anthropologists who can remain in the field with real people for years without showing any kind of emotional attachment or something like that.

Of course, I am not. Sometimes my fieldwork hits me right back in the face. The first time was years ago. There was this teenage girl who had a lot of problems at home. In my work as youth worker and anthropologist I tried to help her as much as possible. First with her homework and later with her preprarations for a job at a prestigious institution. I must admit, I felt very proud when she made it, proud of her and of myself, even more so when she climbed the ranks very quickly. Until she had an accident that made her disabled for the rest of her life in a very very severe way; I felt nothing but sorry, sadness and even some existential confusion. So there you are, you have all the odds against you, but you still make it and then you end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life…

The second time happened last year. In 2008 I defended my PhD on Moroccan-Dutch youth and the formation of a Muslim identity. I had already started with my post-doc project on Salafism and one of the persons (lets say M.) who was present at several meetings where I was as well, contacted me to get a copy of the book. M read the book and subsequently send me a list of questions about the book. And these were very good questions, some of them on a more intellectual level but also questions pertaining to M’s own personal experiences. As time past by I felt I was triggered by M’s questions and responses and at the same time felt admiration for M’s ambitions and they way M engaged with others in the often heated debates in webfora and chatrooms; M was strict, kind, serious but with a good sense of humor and one of those persons who had a kind word for everyone.

M was clearly on the path of training trying to become a pious Muslim. M visited courses, lectures, and so on. Of course M was not without personal difficulties and flaws, since no one is, and some people felt M had too much of a public presence given the fact that for some time M ran a popular chatroom (which was gender mixed) and contributed a lot to debates on several webfora. Because of some restrictions M put on our interaction, we usually were very formal in our contacts on the chatroom and both of us kept a distance in our contacts. Nevertheless, although certainly not always agreeing with M on a personal level, I enjoyed the contact with M because it was intellectually challenging, provided me with new insights, ideas and contacts and M’s honesty was admirable and confronting. At the same time M used me as a sounding board for personal experiences and so on.

M was one of the people therefore I grew very fond off during my years of research in a way that is often not possible within all circles of the Salafi movement. Last Summer, I had not heard from M in a while; nothing extraordinary and usually M would contact me again after a while. The only thing I heard now was a good bye message on the internet a few months earlier which I did not know how to interpret then. In this message M asked people to forgive any wrongdoings M might have done or engaged in.

Several months ago I heard the reason behind this message; M knew that it was the last message. When I heard the news about M’s death I was shocked, I was impressed by the dignified way M carried on until the end, I was sad by the fact M was so young and had a difficult exhausting end and I was confused and curious about the inner peace M expressed and seemed to experience towards the final moment.

So where do these emotions leave me as an anthropologist? Or is merely asking this question already a sign that I’m an overstressed workaholic? One person said to me, you are just human so you are sad that is all. Another one said, wow this as a perfect opportunity to explore some dimensions of people’s lives that you could not do earlier. I have problems with both responses. To start with the latter, this is probably the type of response you encounter in most fieldwork reports, PhD thesis and so on. Yes of course, the person was right of course but to me this seems to be rationality to the extremes. The first response is one you may find in the acknowledgements of books and articles, or occasionally a book is dedicated to the deceased; when you work in the field several years and you know some people already for years and even their personal stuff, you should feel sad. If you don’t, you lack the necessary empathy needed for doing sound ethnographic research. But is it really, you are just sad…and that is all? What does it say about my position as an anthropologist? Is it professional to feel really sad about the death of one of your key informants? What does it say about distance and proximity; two key elements in fieldwork? Does experience particular emotions about your informants mean that you have become too close, lost your impartiality and that, instead, you should view the people merely as raw data? Or are emotions also ways of knowing and understanding what is happening in the field as Shane J. Blackman seems to argue? And does it matter if we like or do not like our informants? Or what if one learns to share the same feelings of anger and hatred as Ghassan Hage describes? Or are we just using other people’s experiences and emotions to study our own fears, doubts, and understandings of the world as David Picard in an article at Anthropologies (What is anthropology?) reveals he realized at one point in his career?

In recent years anthropology appears to have a little more interest in emotions and the field. In ‘Emotions in the Field. The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience‘ Davies and Spencer argue for a more sophisticated and reflexive approach of emotions and experiences in order to translate them into meaningful data (see also Emotions in the Field and Relational Anthropology by Dimitrina Spencer). Or as Shweder tells us ‘sometimes dormant or unknown emotional and cognitive structures within oneself are activated through participation. When they are activated, all of a sudden understanding occurs in a far more profound way’ (1997:162) (referred to in an article by Anne Monchamp in a special issue of Anthropological Matters on emotions in the field H/T Lorenz at At some point, no matter how unsettling these emotions were at a given point in time, reflecting upon these emotions should lead to a greater understanding of the field. And I think that is true, to some extent. As explained by Andrew Beatty, emotions do not just refer to the experience of being, for example, angry at a person, but emotions define the position of people and what is at stake in a field of interactions. Emotions, as he explains, function as social signs.

One of the aspects of religiosity that I always sort of admired, maybe I even envy the people because personally (at an emotional level) I do not really understand, is the profound feeling of peace people like M have when they are faced with death. It is something that has driven me into the field of religion from the start. In my Salafi circles it appears to be a given that one will show up before God and has to account for oneself. Alas, M’s personal but also public farewell to visitors of a webforum and a chat room. Also, more recently, at a gathering a video was shown of a young Salafi ‘brother’ I had met twice and who was in hospital now, diagnosed with cancer. He was speaking with the interviewer about his faith, the support he sought with God (and somehow found). Most impressive for the audience watching however was, besides the fact that he was so seriously ill, his confidence in God, his confident testimony about it and addressing people in the audience by saying that it is never too late to repent but also you never know when it is your time. It was the last video in a meeting called ‘Your future’ (meaning not one’s future as a husband, wife, careermaker or whatever, but death) and it left many men with tears. It is such events that did not leave me unmoved that has led me to asking the question what does the Salafi movement do, rather than what the Salafi movement is.

But of course this is different from the death of one of the key persons in your research. Still, what struck me in M’s personality is something that has given a profound shape to my research. Yes M was a dedicated participant in the Salafi movement with sometimes rigid views and uncomprimising and not always tolerant practices. M was dedicated to become a pious (in the Salafi sense) Muslim in thought, speech, behaviour and appearances. Sincerity and authenticity in personal faith was of the utmost importance and no compromise should be made. But M, like some others, also introduced me into the negotiations in daily life, the ambivalence and ambiguities of every day Salafi religiosity, into M’s realization that not everything M did was correct according to Salafi interpretations and the doubts that come with that realization. And M introduced me into the peace in the end, realizing that it was ok not to be perfect and that it was now upon God to rule. That is M made me aware once again that there is more to a Salafi Muslim than a person with full-formed moral identity connected with radicalism, fundamentalism or whatever label you want to give it. We often here only about the ideas of moral perfection and the idealized version of Islam, yet like others M remained vulnerable to the ambiguities and ruptures inherent in everyday life and within the Salafi movement. (See for a similar idea Schielke’s article Boredom and Despair in Rural Egypt). And isn’t that something all of us, religious or not, are concerned with? And it is probably why I like anthropology so much and sometimes hate it too. It is probably also a major reason why I was so confused with M’s death because I learned the person behind the internet nickname, behind the kunya and behind the Salafi label. Because M was not raw data but  a real person. A modest person dying at a very young age while trying to make the best out of life but who did not get the chance to pursue the dreams and hopes a lot of us have, but was at peace with that.

Thank you my dear M. “Thanks for all the trouble and charity…hehehe”


5 thoughts on “Making sense of the emotional field

  1. Dear Martijn,

    I have skipped the last three paragraphs but still feel like I should react.

    “are emotions also ways of knowing and understanding what is happening in the field as Shane J. Blackman seems to argue?” > this really hits home for me. I’d say (scream, sing out loud) YES.

    Moreover, I’d say you have a right, or a need, to mourn the loss of this person “M”. A need that you should honour for yourself, first.

    Also, I get the sense he committed suicide? Or possibly died under influence of peer pressure, did something knowing he would end for a higher cause?

    Anger seems an important theme. I guess this triggers me because I feel a lot of “misplaced” or “unhealthy” anger goes round these days, and is fuelled in certain circles. Because we do not know how to use it as a power. In the way the ancient Greeks did (thyme). To empower ourselves; to honour the gift that is our life, that are our loved ones, on this beautiful planet.

    I hope I am not completely off the mark here, or sound like a self proclaimed guru. But this is something I have discovered for myself in years of sadness (call it depression or burnout if you will). Peter Sloterdijk’s “Anger and Time” helped me to this idea. And that has helped me get out, and stay out, and encounter the world with fresh eyes and heart.

    If this hits home with you, consider yourself invited to my blog where I try to put some of this into words. To nurture others as it has nurtured me.

  2. Dear Tess,

    Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it. To be clear, no M’s death has nothing to do with suicide at all but since I have to protect M’s anonimity, I cannot go into that further.

    I take up your suggestion of Sloterdijk’s ‘Anger and Time’; I have it here but did not come around to read it. I will do it now.

  3. Hi Martijn,

    Did I say I actually read Peter Sloterdijk? Well, I did not. My stepdad did. I read some abstracts, Wikipedia and googled around it a bit.

    I can highly recommend Ranfar Kouwijzer’s essay referencing him: Which I did read.

    Not suicide or peer pressure related death, that comes like something of a relief. But of course, I’ll never really know – or feel the need to.

    Good luck,


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